Wearing diving goggles and a monofin, she glides into the water and dives like a seal into the depth, where the colour of the water changes from blue to black. Anna von Boetticher loves the silence under water. Three minutes deep down without breathing once? Not a problem on a good day. As a breath-hold diver, she has mastered the art of the longer breathing pause. Untrained people gasp for breath after thirty seconds, at the latest. Our cells need the oxygen to survive.

Breath-hold divers extend the limits dictated by our human biology. Whether extreme athletes climb up into the thin air above 8,000 meters or sink into the depth of the ocean: You need talent, a lot of practice – and a special breathing technique. That means that you use your breathing to consciously influence your natural body functions. With other autonomous and automatic body functions – like your heartbeat or your digestion – that is possible to a much lesser degree.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. And continue. In that rhythm, human adults suck in about half a litre of air fourteen times a minute, on average. The mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and noble gases streams into the finest alveoli of the lungs. Next to the pulmonary alveoli are miniscule blood vessels.

The separation between the two is so thin that gases can permeate it. That is how the oxygen gets into the blood stream and into the cells of the body. Carbon dioxide, a by-product of the metabolism, travels in the opposite direction: from our blood into the lungs and out of the body.

The respiratory centre in the brain steers this process and changes it according to the body’s needs. When we exercise, we need more oxygen and thus breathe more rapidly. When we sleep, our metabolism also rests and we need less oxygen, thus breathing slower. It’s a finely tuned system.

With too much stress or stage fright, for example, that system might get out of balance. We breathe more shallowly and hectically than is good for us. ‘Our breathing pattern mirrors how we feel, physically and mentally’, says psychologist and yoga teacher Janika Epe Radünz. In good times and in bad times.

But we can re-balance the system ourselves and calm down our nerves with the right breathing technique. Or refreshen ourselves. There are plenty of methods we can choose from.

Air Conditioner In Our Face

We can, for example, breathe in through nose or mouth and direct the air more into our chest, our stomach or our back. We can take a small break between breathing in and breathing out. Such apparently banal breathing decisions play a role in whether we feel fit, awake, focussed or relaxed.

Mouth or nose? There is an obvious answer: nose! We are nose breathers. Behind the organ, there is a whole labyrinth of bones, cartilage and cavities. And a barrier at the gate: nose hair holds back dust and other particles. The mucous membrane on the inside warms and moisturises the breathed-in air, catches viruses and bacteria and transports them with the nasal mucus into the throat. From there, we spit it out or swallow it.

Our nose: the perfect air conditioner, almost a purification plant. Dr Tanja Hildenbrand, ENT physician at the University of Freiburg Medical Centre, calls our nose the guard of our deeper respiratory passages.

Mouth breathers, on the other hand, dry out their mouth and throat mucous membranes. With unpleasant effects: they are more susceptible to infections. Even caries and parodontitis are more common. Breathing through your nose is most certainly the healthier option.

Some find that difficult, however. Enlarged nasal concha, a crooked nasal septum or scabs on the mucous membrane can impede the air. ‘Unfortunately, that is a pretty common diagnosis’, says Hildenbrand. But there are easy enough measures to rectify the ailments: You could moisturise the mucous membrane with seawater sprays, a nasal douche or ointments. Or you could buy a humidifier for your flat and use it especially in the winter months.

Positional Change To Aid Your Nose

The so-called nasal cycle also hinders free nasal breathing sometimes. For about 80 per cent of all humans, each side of the nose tumesces alternately for minutes or even hours. If you want to breathe unhinderedly – for example during meditation or yoga – you might get sight-tracked or even frustrated. A simple solution: change your position. ‘If the left nostril is engorged, roll over to the right side. That frees up the upper nostril again’, says yoga teacher Janika Epe Radünz.

Chest or stomach? The answer is: The best is both. Often, we only widen the ribcage when we inhale, drawing air into the chest. The thoracic diaphragm hardly moves. But when we imagine drawing our breath deeper into our stomach, flanks and back, we activate our largest respiratory muscle. It tightens and flattens, thus giving our lungs more space. It is a technique that vocalists use, for instance. Diaphragmatic respiration helps them to exhale their breath slowly and in a controlled fashion through the vocal cords in our larynx. With our diaphragm, we automatically breathe more slowly and thus find it easier to relax.

Imagination is good, experience is better: If you place your hands on your belly or flanks and try to ‘breathe them away’ while inhaling, you automatically draw your breath deeper into the lungs and activate your thoracic diaphragm. This technique called contact breathing helps us to increase the breathing movement for a few minutes. With experience, we get a better feeling for what breathing does to our body. And how we can change the effect with a few simple methods.

Unexpected Results

A new study indicates that we can influence our breathing by using special techniques. Epe Radünz and the meditation researcher Dr Ulrich Ott have investigated the potential effects of various yoga exercises upon our breathing. 36 men and women took part in an eight-week programme.

Within two weeks at a time, they were shown a specific breathing technique and then practised it daily. In a questionnaire, they detailed their subjective physical and mental well-being. Most participants felt – for example – vitalised after exercising ‘Kapalabhati’, a forceful and rapid way of exhaling. The same was not the case after practising alternative nostril breathing – most participants did not experience a positive effect.

Epe Radünz and Ott were surprised by that result. Their explanation: Alternative nostril breathing is harder to learn and more difficult to integrate into our every-day routine. Soothing effects might therefore only show after longer practice. Many participants did, however, benefit from slowing down their breathing. They felt more relaxed and had a sense of well-being.

Relax With Four-Seven-Eleven

‘Decelerated breathing’ seems to be the key to more relaxation and well-being, says Professor Thomas H. Loew, consulting physician for psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy at the University Hospital Regensburg.

It is still unknown what exactly happens in the brain during the process. Neither do we know the roles played by the two antagonists in our autonomous nervous system, the sympathetic nerve and the parasympathetic nerve. The sympathetic nerve increases the motivation of our body, our pulse and our blood pressure. The parasympathetic nerve, on the other hand, increases calmness and regeneration. With decelerated breathing, it seems to gain the upper hand and spread its calming effects: Our heartbeat slows down, our blood pressure decreases. A feeling of relaxation prevails.

In order to experience that calming effect, however, you also need patience. Loew explains: ‘When stressed, take a deep breath? That is a well-meaning advice, but of course it is not enough.’ He recommends the ‘4711 approach’, like the traditional perfume brand from Cologne: breathe in for four seconds, breathe out for seven seconds, and keep this rhythm for eleven minutes.

You will probably not succeed instantaneously. Slowing down your breathing is a step-by-step approach. And it might help to synchronise your movements with your breathing. Participants in the study by Epe Radünz and Ott learned to lift their arms while breathing in and to lower their arms again while breathing out. ‘The brain is occupied by the movement’, Epe Radünz explains. Some people then find it easier to concentrate on the breathing.

In order to focus, walking meditation might also be helpful. Quite literally step-by-step, you breathe in and out with the rhythm of your footsteps. That should help to suppress interfering thoughts.

Stay In Tune With Technical Gadgets

Technical gadgets also help to extend your breathing rhythm. Thomas Loew recommends clocking devices, for example: little gadgets that signal by sound, light or vibration when you should begin to in- or exhale. The same goes for apps you can download onto your smartphone. The big advantage: If you follow the rhythm of a technical breathing gadget, you don’t have to count the seconds in your head.

Ultimately, it is down to personal choice whether technical support is helpful. Some people might be side-tracked by smartphone apps: if – for example – a message arrives while practising. Janika Epe Radünz adds: ‘If you concentrate solely on technical help, you might feel the signals of your body to a lesser degree.’ But ultimately, everybody must find out him- or herself what is best.

Despite supporting movements and technical gadgets: Even the Indian yoga teacher B. K. S. Iyengar initially had his problems with conscious breathing. In his book about the breathing techniques of yoga, he writes: ‘Every morning, I got up to practice, and it was an exertion to hold the breath and to keep the rhythm. I fought against it, but sometimes after breathing in and out three or four times, I gasped for breath.’

That is an experience many people might share in their search for more well-being through healthy breathing. Experts advise to be composed. Instead of practising breathing like an (annoying) exercise, Thomas Loew advised beginners especially to approach it more playfully: ‘Smell a flower, enjoy the fragrance of an infusion. Pray a psalm or sing a song.’ That also slows down your breathing rhythm, albeit to a much lesser degree. But it could be the beginning in the effort to gain – step by step – some breathing space in your life.

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